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OP-ED: Dhaka’s evolving drug scenario

  • Published at 02:03 pm May 31st, 2021

New drugs inevitably trickle down from the affluent to the lower classes

Without sounding conceited, I can say that one of the earliest pieces on the scourge of Phensedyl, the codeine-based cough syrup, was written by me in the early 90s -- when most people in society were incredulous at first that a cough syrup could become addictive. Most dismissed the warnings unceremoniously that a syrup could turn an active mind into a vegetable. 

Just one day ago, I saw policemen rounding up a few known local drug sellers. The road which links the Katabon slope to the Nilkhet second-hand book store has always been notorious. About 15 years ago, the Babupura slum just by the road was the hotbed for all kinds of narcotics, from phensedyl to heroin.

Thankfully, the slum was demolished, the open space taken by the government. About a decade ago, drug sellers thronged the area, compared to a handful of traders seen at present, and with street lighting plus regular police patrols, the situation has seen improvement. 

However, the drug scene continues to evolve in this city. The recent death of a university student after taking LSD within the Dhaka University campus is an indication that a new kind of narcotic is on the rise.

Mandrax to Phensedyl

Before Phensedyl came to the scene, the drug of choice in the early 80s was Mandrax. This is a synthetic drug made and processed in tablet form. The active ingredient in mandrax is methaqualone, and it used to be crushed and mixed with marijuana to be smoked in a pipe. 

Around 1982-83, the drug got the name “Mandy” which became immensely popular. However, usage was very low because society was governed by moral values and disposable cash was limited. When three meals a day was the main concern for most middle class families with an average monthly income between Tk10,000-Tk12,000, putting aside money for some quick fix was unthinkable.

Phensedyl, entering the scene around the mid-80s, was a legally sold, over-the-counter cough syrup available at all stores. But the codeine base turned it into a drug. Bangladesh banned it as soon as it was found that large amounts of the syrup were being sold for addiction purposes. Naturally, demand soared and the syrup, known as CAT at the time, started to come into Bangladesh from the other side of the border.

Phensedyl decimated an entire generation, especially in the northern districts. The drug could not be stopped. We now hear of yaba tablets being shipped into the city inside frozen chicken, fruits, and even false fuel tanks at the bottom of trucks and buses; in the days when phensedyl ruled, the syrup was being shipped inside fruit juice cans, large disinfectant containers, and soda bottles.

Back in 2005, news came to my newspaper office of a large haul of the cough syrup which was unearthed from a subterranean room, specially built for storing the stuff.

Yaba’s entry through rave parties

For the last 10 years, the main headache for the authorities has been the methamphetamine-based tablet, yaba, usually smoked on a silver foil with a cigarette. Yaba is ubiquitous in 2021, though when it first came to the scene in 2003, it was circulated as a party drug.

In the earlier part of the millennium, two night clubs, one of which was called Atlantis, became the gathering spot for the well-heeled, and yaba was reportedly seen at high-end all-night parties, where it was peddled by female entertainers.

Yaba’s spread to all layers of society was possible for two reasons: Its small size which allowed easy carrying, and the usage of women as sellers. Searching a woman, especially a performer/artiste, for drugs never crossed anyone’s mind, which was exploited to the hilt. 

This drug trickled from the upper layer of society to the lower sections. Initially priced at Tk3,000 per tablet, now the price ranges between Tk250-500.

The law was hoodwinked with the “party mood enhancer” tag, which seemed rather innocuous to many. The addiction issue plus its violence-inducing capability was not even known to the initial sellers. The macabre side of the drug came out in 2011-12, when the drug had become available all over the country.

Yaba, popularly called “Baba” or “Guti,” is now the preferred kick, from the working class to the affluent segments. What is most alarming is that a large number of users are women from educated middle-class backgrounds.

While some of these women became hooked while selling it, others were lured by male friends or even boyfriends. An open secret is the heavy use of the stuff within the glamour world, where yaba is seen as the pill that allows performers to work overtime without getting fatigued.

One other sociological reason for the pervasive spread of phensedyl and then yaba which we never address is the inherent anathema to alcohol in our society. Forbidden by faith, alcohol consumption is deemed the ultimate sin and even the social drinker is often demonized. On top of that, alcohol has many overt symptoms, starting with the odour to slurred speech -- conditions which most disapprove of.

For ages, through common culture, be it movies or literature, alcohol has been labelled the ultimate evil and this allowed drugs like Phensedyl and yaba to proliferate. As a reporter covering the social attitude to drugs, I also came across observations from parents who asserted that a cough syrup and a tablet addiction were better than drinking alcohol.

The university student who, in a state of LSD-induced trance, inflicted fatal injuries on himself is proof that a new narcotic, still expensive, is slowly entering the market. The police have said that currently LSD is sold in blots which are priced between Tk2,000-3,000.

When other drugs are available for far less a price, LSD is certainly costly, though how long it will stay outside the reach of the middle class is something only time will tell. Once more, we see the path taken by yaba which entered through the affluent classes and insidiously, but inexorably percolated to lower layers in a matter of five years.

Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.